Washington - To overcome a legacy of suspicion and mistrust, the United States should inaugurate a process of long-term, patient engagement with Iran on a wide range of issues - including its nuclear and human rights policies - according to a distinguished panel of scholars and diplomats appearing on Capitol Hill November 4.
The conference, sponsored by the Iranian American National Council, took place on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
In the first panel, Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said that what is happening inside Iran constitutes a broad, nonviolent civil rights movement, rather than simply a political opposition.
"The movement is still trying to find its form and shape," he said. "Every person is a leader, and every person is a media outlet, thanks to phone and Internet technologies."
Even as he spoke, those cell phones and other media outlets were transmitting dramatic images of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tehran, many wearing green armbands and scarves, being attacked with batons and tear gas by police and Basij militia.
The opposition march defied the government's official demonstration to mark the 30-year anniversary of the embassy takeover. The authorities, as in the past, burned flags and led chants of "Death to America." But this time they were echoed by opposition demonstrators shouting "Death to the dictator," according to news accounts.
"Brave people are still going out in the streets against overwhelming force," said panelist Geneive Abdo, former Middle East correspondent and Iran analyst with The Century Foundation.
In Washington, President Obama issued a statement repeating his call for Iran to move beyond the past and build a new relationship based on mutual respect and noninterference in Iran's internal affairs.
"Iran must choose," the president said. "We have heard for 30 years what the Iranian government is against; the question now is, what kind of future it is for?"
The Iranian government is facing an unprecedented challenge from an opposition comprising a broad cross section of the society - but it is not yet a revolutionary movement, said another panelist, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School in New York.
"Having participated in the 1979 revolution, I can say that there is not a lot of enthusiasm for the deep ruptures to society that occur during revolution," Boroujerdi said. "They certainly don't like the present system, but they prefer gradual change."
Abdo agreed, noting that the strength of the movement derives in large part from its nonviolent character, allowing it to hold the high moral ground and charge that "the Islamic government is no longer Islamic."
Nevertheless, a radical polarization is occurring in Iran between the opposition civil rights movement and a government increasingly dominated by the military and the Revolutionary Guard, Abdo said.
Boroujerdi described the current political situation as "a political tsunami," but said that the opposition is reluctant to call for revolution because they know the heavy price everyone would pay in loss of life and property.
All three panelists agreed that the opposition is looking for moral support from the Obama administration, and that broad-based economic sanctions would only serve to strengthen the government.
DIRECTIONS FOR U.S. POLICY
A second panel, focusing on options for U.S. policy, featured two veteran U.S. diplomats: Thomas Pickering, former ambassador and under secretary of state for political affairs, and John Limbert, former ambassador, Iran scholar and an embassy hostage in Tehran for 14 months. They were joined by arms control expert Greg Thielmann.
Limbert said he was surprised that the estrangement between the United States and Iran had lasted 30 years, and Pickering warned that the diplomatic track will be lengthy and full of contradictions.
The United States must be prepared to be very patient, Pickering said. About reaching agreements, he recalled the adage, "Want it bad, get it bad."
"President Obama has presented a quandary for [Supreme Leader] Khamenei," Limbert said. "It's easy to deal with a pure and simple enemy - but Obama isn't an enemy, he's a rival. Khamenei is forced to make rationalizations in the public eye, which will cause the government to discredit itself."
Pickering endorsed the Obama administration's decision to open negotiations without preconditions and stressed the importance of setting a "grand agenda" and working toward evolutionary change, as in the case of U.S. relations with China.
These negotiations, he said, should tie together nuclear, human rights and regional political issues, along with the full participation of the international community, particularly the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany).
Thielmann of the Arms Control Association said current obstacles to the Vienna agreement on the transfer of uranium out of the country are political.
One solution, he suggested, would be that Iran ships the stockpile to a country it trusts, like Turkey, which would safeguard it as it moves in stages to Russia or France for enrichment suitable for medical applications.
All three participants expressed deep skepticism about the utility of economic sanctions. Pickering said that, instead, the consequence for Iran's defying the international community should be political isolation.
While expressing deep concern and uncertainty about Iran's nuclear program, neither Pickering nor Thielmann thought the leadership had yet made an irrevocable decision to develop nuclear weapons.
The task right now for the United States "is to negotiate with the government and listen to the people," Pickering said.
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